After a winless season in 2010, Brian Fish reintroduced winning to the Olivet Nazarene University football program in 2011, his first season as head coach at his alma mater. The Tigers racked up five wins under Fish, including three in a row and four in five games to close the season, which marked the biggest year-to-year improvement in school history.
Now, with experience on defense and untapped potential on offense, the Tigers look to take another step forward in what’s become a re-energized program. They received a vote in this year’s spring poll, a nod that someone outside of Bourbonnais has noticed, too. One of the biggest obstacles will be a difficult schedule, especially in the first half of the season. Each of the Tigers’ first five opponents are ranked in the NAIA Top 25 poll.
Here’s what the Tigers look like in 2012, position-by-position:
Despite limited reps in the preseason, sophomore Rico Prestia went 5-4 as a starter last season and will get the nod in 2012. After throwing for 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last year, he continues to improve in the passing game, and his next step forward will include more consistency in his decision making. Four freshmen are vying for the backup role.
Sophomore Michael Ho-Lewis started every game as a freshman and got stronger as the season wore on. He scored seven touchdowns during his stretch of four 100-yard games in the second half of the season and will be the primary ball carrier again this season. Also in the mix is sophomore David Payne, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry in his first season, and freshman Marcus Waller, who enjoyed a great 2011 preseason but took a redshirt due to injury.
The Tigers’ two top pass catchers from 2011 graduated, which leaves a number of players vying for time. Of the returners, 6-foot 3 sophomore Tyler Swindle has the most size. Meanwhile, a number of freshmen could make an impact, including Blake Anders, MJ Green and Aaron Salas, who took a redshirt last year. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, junior Kenneth Moore has plenty of size and will split time with junior Colton Parker at tight end.
An all-conference second team member, junior left guard Coleman Gidcumb will anchor the offensive line and line up next to a four-year starter in senior center Chad McDaniel. Left tackle Seth Barrigear is an experienced starter, senior Ryan Ellingsen and freshman Zach Roat could see time at right tackle and sophomore Alan Knol can play both guard and center positions.
Senior Tony Turner has the most experience and tied with sophomore Myles Toney for second on the team with three sacks. Toney moved from linebacker and started during the second half of last season. They’ll be joined by junior James Banks, who enjoyed a nice offseason, as well as senior Ben Tobey and junior Andrew Rothen.
At a position of depth and experience, senior Ernesto Esparza, junior Kossi Komlassan and sophomore Brandon Ruemler each started all 11 games in 2011. Ruemler led the team with 90 tackles while Esparaza had a knack for the big play: he ran back an interception 92 yards for the game-winning touchdown against Coe (Iowa) and scored another touchdown on a fumble return. Junior David Prater and sophomores John Litrenta and Michael Williams are also in line for playing time.
One of the Tigers’ most consistent producers last season, senior Will Cummings tied for the team lead with three interceptions and ran one of his three fumble recoveries back for a touchdown. Sophomore Mark Kosrow finished fourth on the team in tackles, while junior Ben Backstrom and senior Mike Barkley both received playing time last year and improved during the offseason.